4 Tips to Improve Environmental Performance of Email and Digital Communications

When discussing the sustainability of marketing, attention very much needs to be paid to digital communications. Many fall into a trap: We may believe we are being environmentally “good” when we use a digital message in place of a print message. Evidence increasingly tells us to think more deeply.

When discussing the sustainability of marketing, attention very much needs to be paid to digital communications. Many fall into a trap: We may believe we are being environmentally “good” when we use a digital message in place of a print message. Evidence increasingly tells us to think more deeply.

Banks, utilities, investment companies, retailers, credit card companies and others that all use “green messaging” to appeal to customers to go “digital” with their invoicing and statements most often commit a sin of “greenwashing”—because they are not measuring truly the environmental impact of such claims. (I’ve mentioned a superb, must-read report for marketing professionals on the “Seven Sins of Greenwashing” in previous blog posts: www.sinsofgreenwashing.org.)

However, digital and electronic data-driven technology users and suppliers are highly—even urgently—concerned about the amount of energy used to run IT infrastructures—from data centers, to servers, to PCs and laptops and the power grid that keeps them all humming 24/7. They are not alone. A recent U.S. Environmental Protection Agency report says 1.5 percent of total energy consumption in America is attributable to data centers—and the figure is growing rapidly. Streaming video eats server capacity—and more and more U.S. households (and workplaces) are spending time online; watching television and movies off tablets and laptops; streaming audio and video; chatting and emailing with friends, families and social networks … and, in short, tapping energy sources that keep the dialogue moving.

This has a clear environmental and sustainability impact—requiring brands to assess their energy sources, the efficiency of the IT equipment, and, most certainly, any verbiage their organizations may have used previously to state the “green” credentials of digital over print.

While purchasing Green IT and Green Power are perhaps the most profound ways digital communication users can tackle being sustainable environmentally, there are other smaller but visible ways to lessen environmental footprints when dialoguing online with stakeholders. This is just a suggested list:

  1. Team up with a green partner. Have a tie-in with an environmental or conservation group. With a recent e-commerce purchase I made with one marketer, I was prompted to direct where I wanted a seedling to be planted in return for my transaction, with one of four regional forest areas (California, Michigan, Florida or Virginia) of the National Forest Service.
  2. Guard against greenwashing. Avoid “greenwashing” when environmental claims are made for everyday business activities or for products, behaviors or processes where one or two attributes may be “green,” but the overall activity may very well not be. There are two excellent resources to refer to prevent “greenwashing.” Going digital—again—is not “green” if a company fails to analyze the lifecycle of its power choices and data centers, for example. Canada-based TerraChoice, which works with both Canada and U.S. regulators to monitor environmental claims, has published The Seven Sins of Greenwashing: Environmental Claims in Consumer Markets. By reading and absorbing this report, communicators will likely not make a mistake in hyperbole over a green dialogue claim. Further, the Federal Trade Commission is scheduled to release its updated Green Guides for environmental claims at any point this year—with an expectation it will clarify creative interpretations behind many of today’s eco-marketing terms.
  3. Opt-out, opt-in, opt-down and more. Modify any online preference center for emailing and mobile messaging to customers from mere CAN-SPAM compliance to “best practice” heaven—where each customer is in (near) total control. Preference centers should be designed for our multichannel world, rather than simply an on/off switch for email. Opt out. Opt in. Opt down. Allow for frequency, subject matter, mail and phone switches, and—most certainly—third-party data sharing suppression if that applies. Retailers are excellent leaders in this area: Crate & Barrel, Williams-Sonoma, L.L. Bean each offer preference centers on their respective Web sites. Likewise, segmenting stakeholders and sending targeted emails to each segment helps to prevent non-responsive email. Why is this green? McAfee, the provider of security software, recently reported that each legitimate email (sending and receipt) generates approximately 4 grams of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas associated with climate change. FYI: One of my clients, Harte-Hanks, offers an excellent white paper on designing online preference centers.
  4. Open up the suggestion box. Web 3.0 and accountability go hand in hand. There’s no one path to environmental responsibility, so let customers, vendors and other stakeholders help. Brands should tell their sustainable story online—enable audiences to post suggestions and engage an internal team to evaluate all of them. Talk with suppliers—not just about green IT, but ways to procure power, print, paper, packaging, office supplies and other workplace necessities. Environmental pursuits—and their tie-in to business success—shouldn’t be kept a secret. By sharing objectives and outcomes with customers and vendors, there is higher chance of success—and transparency is achieved.

The lesson here: like print, digital communications have an environmental footprint. As marketers, if we seek sustainability for our enterprises, and if we wish to communicate such objectives to our many stakeholders with credibility, these impacts need to be assessed, measured and managed accordingly in the very communications process itself.

“Consider the environment before you print this electronic message.” Yes, consider it—thoroughly!

Author: Chet Dalzell

Marketing Sustainably: A blog posting questions, opportunities, concerns and observations on sustainability in marketing. Chet Dalzell has 25 years of public relations management and expertise in service to leading brands in consumer, donor, patient and business-to-business markets, and in the field of integrated marketing. He serves on the ANA International ECHO Awards Board of Governors, as an adviser to the Direct Marketing Club of New York, and is senior director, communications and industry relations, with the Digital Advertising Alliance. Chet loves UConn Basketball (men's and women's) and Nebraska Football (that's just men, at this point), too! 

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